True story: when Charles Laughton began preparing for his first and last onscreen directorial effort-- the dark, fairy tale nightmare Night of the Hunter-- he became convinced that no one else on earth would be better for the role of the murderous "Preacher Harry Powell" than the snake eyed Robert Mitchum. He feared Robert's rejection, because Powell was an outlandish, bombastic character unlike anything the underplaying actor had ever performed. Still, he made his pitch:
Laughton: Bob, we have a story here we are hoping to turn into a little film, and I would very much like to talk to you about the leading role. The character is a bit different. He's a terrible, evil... sh*t of a man.
There you have it: Bob in a nutshell. Robert Mitchum kept it real. Never catering to expectations nor indulging in diva tantrums, he eschewed all forms of pretension or formality and openly indulged in his inner bad-ass. But Robert, despite being the King of Cool, was a bit of a pretender himself. His act of the cynical drifter who didn't give a damn was an exaggeration of his true self. His mask of devious detachment and impassion was a front to deter those around him from his secret vulnerabilities, his artistic drive, and his surprising intelligence. Still, girls went ga-ga for him, because he was "a little bit evil" and they dug it, and his same disenchanted, searching soul was the one that gave him incredible depth as both an actor and human being.
Robert Charles Durman Mitchum was born on August 6, 1917 to a Scots-Irish and American Indian mutt, the charismatic and combative Jimmy Mitchum of South Carolina, and the more easy-going and artistic Norwegian, Ann Harriet Gunderson of Connecticut. He would be equally endowed with components of both parents, inheriting the willful, fighting, liquor-loving penchants of his father and the more poetic and intellectual sensibilities of his mother. The middle child was sandwiched between elder sister Annette (who later changed her name to Julie) and younger brother John. At a mere 1 1/2 years of age, Bob's father was killed while working in Charleston's navy yard, crushed between two box-cars-- a common occurrence in those days. A deeply mournful Ann moved her family back to New England for a time, then back to South Carolina, and later to Delaware, where Bob spent the majority of his formative, youthful years. Already, the spirit of the gypsy was in him. His family would only ever know the warm, sensitive, romantic side of Bob's nature, and would be surprised when they learned that he had gotten into fights with local boys or had yet again been kicked out of school. The irony was that Bob was the smartest kid in his class. Adept with what can only be called a photographic memory and a highly intuitive, comprehending mind, he was often the one to point out the teachers' mistakes. School friends never saw him take a book home to study, because he already had his entire lesson memorized and figured. Yet, Bob was also the student to get in trouble for playing pranks on teachers, cutting class, or causing a general ruckus. As a poor kid, he had a well-ingrained distaste, not only for spoiled, oblivious people, but also any kind of authority figure. He would always carry a chip on his shoulder, yet as he matured, he at least learned how to pick his battles, probably knowing that he was smarter than any of the supposedly learned elite who were barking orders at him or making fun of his impoverished family.
After he was expelled from his high school at the age of fourteen, Bob hopped to a train to... anywhere. There was no plan. There was no ending point. He just wanted to move around, see the country, and let it ride. He would hop trains with the rest of the hobos, often jumping off for his dear life when the cops on board discovered them and starting shooting! He would end up stranded in various places, work for a little food and money, roam a bit, then hop back on. Various poems and letters to home kept him mentally busy on quiet nights passing through the country, in addition to alcohol and a little something called Marijuana, or as he called it, "the poor man's whiskey." Eventually, he was forced to return home to his mother's care, (she was now remarried to Major Hugh Morris), after he was bitten by a poisonous snake, and his leg became infected. The doctor wanted to amputate his leg, but Ann, with her bohemian wherewithal, concocted her own natural potion of herbs and roots to save her son's life and limb. It was upon his return to Delaware, where he was limping around on crutches, that he met his brother's latest love interest, Dorothy Spence. Only thirteen-years-old, Dorothy didn't move as fast as the other girls. She was modest, unassuming, and thoughtful. Bob took one look at her and said, "She was it... And that was that." John didn't take it too hard when Bob started working his way into Dorothy's heart, but Dorothy thought Bob was a bit of a pompous nut when she first met him. Then, he started laying on the Shakespeare. And the lyrical quotations. And those thin, penetrating eyes... Soon, they were in love.
Bob built his scrawny, slender frame into a muscular powerhouse when working with the Civilian Conservation Corp. at the age of sixteen. Then, he packed up with his family to try things out in California, where his entertainer sister was already making a go of it. He swore he would return for "Dottie," then headed for a new life as a beach bum. He had been earning a little dough here and there to support the family, including a brief stint as a boxer, when sister Annette literally pushed him on stage to audition at a local theater. Bob wasn't openly interested-- acting was for "sissies" after all-- but secretly he had a natural penchant for performance that had lain dormant for far too long. His family had also noticed his hamming, impressions, and general theatrics, and because of their influence, he accidentally earned himself a role in the play "Rebound." He would take on odd jobs and various roles after his debut, but he continued to avoid commitment to the craft. He was also making money on the side by penning songs, lyrics, and "patter" for local variety and musical acts. He was mostly focused on earning a solid living, so he could start building a life with Dottie. Yet, the signs were clear from the get go. Critics and cast members were blown away by his incredible stage presence and subtle acting style, not to mention his easy use of slang and incredibly verbose vocabulary. For now, he was getting by, so he and Dorothy got hitched, she relocated to California, and they moved into the former chicken shack in the family's back yard. (Dorothy probably had second thoughts).
It wouldn't be small potatoes for long. After his first son, James, was born, Bob nearly went blind working for Lockheed. His mother suggested he look into the picture business, and soon he had nonchalantly gotten himself an agent and a string of roles in B-Westerns, including the Hopalong Cassidy series. The laid-back, man's man world of this brand of cinema was a good place for the skeptical Bob to start. Had he been introduced to the more materialistic and inflated world of slick Hollywood filmmaking, he probably would have run for the hills. As it was, he easily grew comfortable in front of the camera. He would arrive on set, take a look at the script, memorize it in one reading, then hit his mark. Of course, more work went into it than he would ever admit, and many a director would confront him about his feigned indifference. Not only was his bold, distant, yet inviting onscreen persona getting notice and praise, but those he worked with knew that he was actually the hardest working man in show-business. He put great thought into his characterizations, making them somehow more authentic and real, whereas most studio actors gave essentially superficial, "get my good side" performances. After three years, Bob had his big break in Story of G.I. Joe, in which his human and heart-breaking portrayal of "Lt. Walker" earned him his first and only Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. He bounced from Westerns, to Noir, to Drama, and back again, proving his versatility and earning countless numbers of fans.
When he was signed with RKO, his "type" would be forever solidified. In complex thrillers and noirs, he would become the disenchanted outsider with questionable morals-- complete with cigarette and trench coat. His career would include a long list of impressive credits, including Out of the Past, His Kind of Woman, Angel Face, Night of the Hunter, and The Sundowners. These were his trophy pictures. Bob was always willing to "go there," to investigate a character with more cracks and fractures than the typical pretty boy role. He had no concern for his star power, his name above the title, nor the size of his role. He was more interested in doing a job and doing it well. The surprisingly innocent blend of masculinity and slight ignorance he molded for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and the intensely sexual and sinister creature he created in Cape Fear are testaments to his profound capabilities as an actor. What enhanced his edge was his mystery. You can never quite figure Robert Mitchum out. Even his family would draw a blank when asked to sum him up or explain his behaviors. A traveling gypsy to the end, he was his own island, and this quality intensified his onscreen roles. That's not to say he didn't partake in his share of stinkers, he made quite a few of them with his career enduring its ups and downs, but in the end, he always improved whatever project he worked on just by being in it. He didn't care if a movie wasn't a hit; he didn't go to see them anyway. He was more concerned with the paycheck and putting food on the table to feed his brood of eventually 3 children: Jim, Chris, and Petrine.
In his personal life, Bob was also a conundrum. He could drink like a fish, and he occasionally turned violent or unexpectedly and confusedly enraged when under the influence, yet he would walk on the sound stage the next day, no worse for the wear, as if he had gotten 12 hours of beauty sleep. He was a brilliant conversationalist and orator, but he had few friends and even fewer in the entertainment business. He was able to strike up camaraderies with guys like John Wayne or Frank Sinatra, but his most enduring friendships were with women of class, substance, and smarts like Jane Russell and Deborah Kerr. He was very protective of women who were fragile, such as Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth, whom he never approached in a romantic fashion but watched over like a brother. Some of his co-stars simply bored him, because they were self-absorbed "bimbos," but he worked well with and respected hard-working, down-to-earth girls who enjoyed his naughty, uncouth sense of humor-- like Janet Leigh and Jane Greer, who both adored working with him. That's not to say Bob always kept things platonic. Inheriting his father's demons and probably suffering from the lack of a real father figure, Bob would engage in many an irresponsible affair, including one with Ava Gardner and a more infamous relationship with Shirley MacLaine, with whom he fell deeply in love during Two for the Seesaw. Dorothy overlooked the indiscretions time and again, because she knew he would always come back to her with the same old excuse. Bob didn't seek out these infidelities necessarily; mostly, he just found himself unable to resist when a temptation was so energetically placed before him. Shirley was the only woman who ever accidentally threatened Dorothy's place as the only real woman in his life. Yet, as always, Bob came back. He and Dorothy remained married until his death in 1997. (He was just shy of 80-years-old).
Bob's essential problem was his pair of itchy feet. He was a born adventurer with a fear of monotony, traps, or snares, (and he'd had his share of them with multiple arrests in his life, including the Marijuana scandal, which was coincidentally later expunged from his record after a set-up was uncovered). He would never stay anywhere for long. He was a loving father but an unemotional one. He was there when someone needed him, but he was mostly distant and lost in his own thoughts. One of the reasons he liked acting was the ability it gave him to travel-- to get going before things went stale. Back and forth, here and back, home and far and away, the native blood in him couldn't stand still. The philosopher in him couldn't sit idly nor ignorantly. His cross to bear was his need for more and his own secret fear of rejection-- his unfortunate theology that opening up fully or being truly emotional was wrong. What he felt, what he carried within him, he carried alone, wandering, seeking, and solving all of life's mysteries before his own life was over. The little snippets of his personal discoveries can be gleaned from the identities he created in Dan Milner, Max Cody, Preacher Harry Powell, Jeff McCloud, Lucas Doolin, and Charles Shaugnessey. Moviedom's master poker player, Robert Mitchum never showed his hand. But then, when you're holding aces, you don't need to.